The Amateur Amateur: The First Ten Years
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
We've graduated from being clueless newcomers to being clueless old timers.
January 30, 2005
January marks a
special anniversary for my wife Nancy and me. It was 10 years ago
this month that we became Amateur Radio operators. A lot has happened
during that time: upgrades, new radios, antenna adventures and the
occasional meltdown. At the very least we've graduated from being
clueless newcomers to the hobby to being clueless old timers.
Rowland, the plastic owl, protecting the coax drip line.
If I had to sum
up the past decade in one word, it would be "unexpected."
The very fact that Nancy joined me when I got into the hobby was an
overwhelming surprise. Up to that point she'd exhibited very little
understanding of technology and, in fact, demonstrated a healthy fear
of it. To this day I still admire her decision to take on the
challenge of learning about radio and getting an Amateur Radio
license. She's an amazing woman.
I didn't have
much of a plan when I got into the hobby. I was really a police
scanner buff. At the time a plethora of laws was being passed that
would restrict the use of scanners. Having an Amateur Radio license
afforded at least a little protection, and that's actually why I
decided to get one. If I looked forward at all, I guess I figured
that I would eventually become proficient at Morse code, be active in
a local club, learn about the inner workings of radios and be able to
repair them, and be a regular on the airwaves.
nothing like that has happened. I'd like
to develop my code
skills but always have something slightly more pressing to do than
practice. I'm a member
of a local club but never attend
meetings let alone participate in its activities. I have
a few stabs at understanding how radios work. I think I grasp the
fundamentals, but I doubt I'd be able to repair one beyond replacing
a broken knob. And for whatever reason, I'm still a little shy about
jumping on the air and talking. So it's probably a good thing that I
didn't lay down any firm expectations for myself.
that Nancy and I would upgrade our licenses. At least we did it, but
even that led to unexpected events. As soon as we obtained our
General class tickets we were asked to become VEs (volunteer
examiners). I didn't see that one coming at all.
Nancy's "official" ham radio cap. It blew me away when she
actually wore it.
The hobby itself
turned out to be much more dynamic than I had expected. Somehow I had
envisioned Amateur Radio as a great stone edifice--rock solid and
unchanging [a lot of radio amateurs still do--Ed
]. Wow, was I
ever wrong about that! Almost as soon as we became hams the number of
license classes jumped from five to six, although it's since
decreased to three. There have been constant battles to retain our
frequency allocations. Clever people keep coming up with new emission
modes. The ARRL has come up with a series of telecourses
for hams who wish to learn more about various aspects of the hobby.
And there is an ongoing debate over Morse code that borders on
becoming a holy war. So much for the engraved concrete concept.
This column was
another unexpected development. Looking back I'm still astounded that
I took on writing it a mere six months after getting my license. I
was, in every sense, a true amateur
amateur. I started writing
the column for the newsletter of a local police scanner club. The
idea was to encourage other members to obtain their Amateur Radio
licenses by showing that not all
hams were techno-wizards with
an encyclopedic knowledge of radio. Basically I was trying to make
the hobby seem less daunting to newcomers. I still
noticed that a lot of what I wound up doing had little to do with
actually operating a radio. As I said before, I'm still somewhat mike
shy, probably because I can't think of a lot of pithy things to say
right off the top of my head. Writing this column is different. If I
run out of clever things to say, I can always take a break. And
unlike something spouted over the airwaves, my column can always be
edited [indeed it can--Ed
]. But a lot of things changed once I
got into emergency communications. And like everything else related
to the hobby, I hadn't anticipated becoming involved in that either.
The driving force
behind our police scanner club was a fellow named Mike Redman,
KA0YXU. He was also responsible for the SKYWARN program in our
county, so quite naturally many of us in the scanner club migrated
into weather spotting. As it turned out, the SKYWARN program was tied
in with the county RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service)
organization, so we wound up affiliated with that program. Weather
spotting was a good way to get on the airwaves. I didn't have to come
up with clever or lengthy things to say, just short concise reports
on weather conditions.
For reasons I've been unable to fathom there seems to be a mag-mount mobile
antenna on my lawnmower.
It was also
emergency communications that drove me to finally sample the HF
bands. I had a HF rig, but could barely hear anything and definitely
couldn't be heard. I had very little interest in HF at the time, so
my transceiver sat in the basement gathering dust. Then Nancy and I
took the Level I ARRL Amateur Radio Emergency Communications course.
Among other topics, it covered the National Traffic System (NTS) in
detail, and some of our homework involved posting messages on it. I
suppose we could have skipped that part, but it gave me incentive to
improve my HF antenna system. I won't say that I became a regular on
the HF bands, but I do participate in the regional HF emergency nets.
Again, I don't have to say much.
And finally I
joined my county's ARES
(Amateur Radio Emergency Service) group. I did start out doing
off-the-air things such as teaching a class, coming up with exercises
for the group, and working on the group's Web site. But then the
Emergency Coordinator threw me a curve ball and appointed me as the
Net Manager. That pretty much guaranteed that I'd spend a lot of time
on the air.
Even my own
mind continually surprises me. One thing that I noticed as soon as I
got my license was that Amateur Radio operators don't have last
names. It appears that they turn them in after being issued ham radio
call signs. Go to any club meeting, and you'll see hams stand up and
introduce themselves by first name and call sign. They never mention
a last name. That always troubled me, because I simply could not
remember all those call signs. But I fairly recently discovered that
my brain had finally activated a call sign recognition program. After
almost 10 years of having no idea who was talking, I suddenly knew
many people I heard on the air by call sign
and first name.
(For some reason, those last names continue to elude me.)
many lesser--but no less unexpected--things happen. For example I put
up one of those plastic owls designed to scare away birds. It's not
protecting my garden. It's protecting the drip line of my coaxial
cable. You can't imagine what the side of my house looked like before
I got that owl. Then there was the day I saw Nancy actually wearing a
baseball cap with her call sign on it. I did a double-take on that
one. And for no reason that I can fathom there seems to be a magnetic
mount mobile antenna on my lawn mower.
So it has been a
decade full of surprises, sometimes quirky, but usually positive. I'm
looking forward to the next 10 years. Will I make any predictions
about what will happen? No way!
Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant,
Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name
-- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a
rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His
wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related
Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail,
© 2005 American Radio Relay League